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Taliban shifts to southwest Pakistan

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

QUETTA, Pakistan

Talibanization, long a serious problem in Pakistan's northwest, is accelerating in and around the southwestern city of Quetta, undermining secular parties and posing new threats to both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Outside the popular Baig snack bar, a sign now reads: "Woman are not allowed, only for gents." The Taliban forbid mingling of unrelated men and women.

Attacks on minority Shi'ite Muslims are also on the rise. In January, Hussain Ali Yousafi, leader of the Hazar Democratic Party, was killed, apparently by Sunni fundamentalists.

While the Pakistani government has blamed Baluch ethnic nationalists for the kidnapping last month of American John Solecki, a local representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, nationalists have denied this and said the Taliban was involved.

Sanaullah Baluch, a spokesman for the Baluchistan National Party (BNP) and a former senator, accused Pakistani intelligence agencies of supporting Talibanization to undermine ethnic nationalists.

"Taliban and their supporters are consolidating their grip around Quetta while the government has become a facilitator of this process of Talibanization," he told The Washington Times.

He said Taliban supporters have acquired land worth $2.5 million in the eastern and western parts of Quetta with the covert support of the "establishment," a euphemism for Pakistani intelligence agencies.

The Taliban has set up scores of Islamic schools, or madrassas, in what have become safe havens for the Taliban and no-go areas for Baluchis, he said.

The government denies supporting the Taliban. A government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic said, "There has been some problem with radical elements cropping up around Quetta, but the government has kept its eye on it and would never allow them to become a threat."

Secular Baluch nationalist movements have been active in the province since the 1960s and seek greater economic and political rights for their ethnic group. Successive Pakistani governments, dominated by the country's largest ethnic group, the Punjabis, have long viewed these movements as unpatriotic and periodically launched operations to suppress them.

The government is aided by the fact that Baluchistan's population is almost equally divided between Baluchis and Pashtuns. Taliban members are largely Pashtuns.

Sanaullah Baluch and other Baluch leaders base their contention that the Pakistani security forces are promoting the Taliban in Quetta in part on the fact that the government has not carried out any military operations against the group.

"Billions of rupees were being spent on eliminating the Taliban and their supporters" in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North West Frontier Province, he told a Pakistani newspaper, while the government ignores the "alarmingly dangerous moves" of the Taliban in Baluchistan.

Security specialists in Pakistan have long said that the Pakistani security apparatus, which helped create the Taliban in the 1980s, continues to regard the movement as a strategic asset to pursue Pakistani interests in Afghanistan and in Pashtun and Baluch areas of Pakistan.

However, military operations have failed to quell the Baluch movement, which resurfaced after the Pakistani army killed former Baluchistan governor and chief minister Nawab Akbar Bugti in August 2006.

Located just a few hours' drive from Kandahar, the birthplace of the Afghan Taliban, Quetta is also thought to be hosting the Afghan Taliban Quetta Shura, or council, which is considered to be the Taliban government in exile since U.S. and Afghan forces toppled the regime in Kabul in 2001.

Afghan and U.S. commanders have long said that Taliban leaders, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, guide commanders in Afghanistan from Quetta - although recent reports say some Afghan Taliban members have relocated to the port city of Karachi in the southern province of Sindh.

"Mullah Mohammed Omar, to whom [al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden has pledged loyalty, has lived in Quetta, Pakistan, for the past several years," Bruce Riedel, a former CIA specialist on South Asia, wrote in November in the publication Current History.

As the United States prepares to surge as many as 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan, there are concerns that the Taliban, acting from Quetta, could defeat U.S. hopes to stabilize the country.

Abdul Hayee Baloch, a former Pakistani parliamentarian who now heads the leftist National Party, told The Times that while Quetta and Baluchistan have been increasingly radicalized for two decades, since the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, new efforts to Talibanize Quetta are connected to the U.S. surge in Afghanistan.

"Most of the Taliban in Quetta are of Afghan descent, and they got Pakistani identity documents with the connivance of Pakistani officials," he said. "The purpose of Pakistani officials has been to further Pakistan's interest in Afghanistan through these Taliban and to use them as counterforce to Baluch and Pashtun nationalists." He predicted, however, that the effort to suppress the Baluch movement would fail.

Malik Siraj Akbar, a local political analyst, told The Times that the greatest fear of local people is that U.S. forces will extend drone attacks to Quetta. The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Obama administration is considering expanding drone attacks into Baluchistan to deal with the growing threat of the Taliban there.

Mr. Akbar said that local Pashtuns have not objected to the Taliban presence and that the Taliban members have even found social space among the traditionally secular Baluchis.

A senior official in the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, Akram Shah, said what is happening in Quetta is terrorism.

"The point of concern is that it has come to light that everywhere in the world, terror incidents and groups have had links in Pakistan," he said.

The Muslim fundamentalist party, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), a member of the governing coalition of Pakistan, supports the Taliban presence in Quetta and ministers from the party in Baluchistan are facilitating the Taliban presence to drive a wedge between Baluchis and Pashtuns, Mr. Akbar said.

"The provincial government is not at all concerned about tackling Talibanization," he said. "The reason is that in order to remain in power the provincial chief minister needs the support of parties like JUI-F." However, Maulana Dur Mohammad, a JUI-F official who served as Quetta district vice president, rejected the charges.

"JUI-F has no links with Afghan Taliban as our party has a history older than Pakistan´s while Taliban is a phenomenon of today," he said. No doubt the law and order situation in Quetta is adverse but we have not seen any Taliban."

The JUI-F leader added, "We also want implementation of Shariah [Islamic law] but we believe parliamentary and democratic ways are the best in this regard."